Ken Greenberg, Urban Design consultant, who is working on the plans for Bank Street, south of Billings Bridge, spoke in the evening of November 3. Ken started the evening with a video I had never seen before and is worth watching. The animation video from 1958 called Magic Highway USA shows a fantastic conceptual idea by Disney -with somewhat naive optimism- of how the world would look like in the future. I can’t start to describe the many ideas in the video, you have to see it yourself. Note the mention of GPS, large overhead road signs, rear view camera’s and cruise control (setting the recommended speed, albeit not automatically). One remark is wonderfully dated, when the video shows a car splitting in two parts and whizzing off in different directions, with the voice over saying that the “father (is going to) to his office, and the mother and son to the shopping centre“.
Ken shared a number of interesting insights, referring to Jane Jacobs’, ‘eyes on the street’, showed us that traffic jams in Toronto cause a $6 billion drag on the economy and that high gas prices are worsening the housing crisis in suburbia (who wants to buy a home, which requires you to fill up your gas tank several times a week to get to work), but not in downtown areas, as people have the alternative to walk and cycle to their destinations. Ken explains that cars are obviously not going to disappear; the challenge is to limit the trips (and that is why the Urban Commuter cycles to work, although there is a car in the driveway).
Something I had read about before, which already started to happen in Japan years ago, starts to become more normal here too: ownership of a car -unlike in our (grand)parents generation- is becoming less and less important for someone’s status. In fact, in Japan, a computer is higher on young adults lists than a car. You see the same thing happening in dense places like Amsterdam and Paris or example. People no longer see a car as part of their identity, a very interesting mind shift. No wonder, as CAA/GlobeandMail Drive calculated in 2010: a minivan cost you no less than a 1000 dollars a month in the first four years, if you include all cost, like depreciation. As my teacher taught us in university: depreciation is really the money you have to set aside every month/year in order to buy another car eventually. A painful reality (like having your house reshingled, which cost us $10,000 last week).
Ken thinks we are living in exciting times: “we are in the midst of a graceful shift into sustainability” (in fact, when I am typing this, the CBC is running an item on the cost of infrastructure on the National with Peter – overly dramatic- Mansbridge). Ken noted that civil society has to step up and give the politicians the cover to show they are listening to their constituents. In other words, write your councillor that you want to see a sustainable city, with numerous bike and walk facilities. Trust me, you don’t need to convince most councillors that building more roads goes nowhere, as the cost for building and upkeep of a road network is beyond any city’s budget eventually. Road building and maintainance is financially unsustainable in an economy of stagflation that moves sideways at the most, so be prepared for more taxes, levies and tolls.
Ken really liked what is happening with the revitilisation of Hintonburg, Ottawa. As mentioned before, he is working on Bank Street, south of Billings Bridge. Councillor Clark has already asked for better bike infrastructure on/near Billings Bridge (even though it is not his ward, but it is good to see that councillors look beyond their wards). Ken closed with mentioning road diets being a great idea and he noted the success of Hintonburg’s village within a city concept.
One problem we have in a country with a lot of space though, is that land is cheap outside the burbs. So builders build ‘affordable‘ housing. It is then the city’s problem to deal with the clogged Woodroffe Ave’s and Innes Roads of the world. In reality, the cost of widening the existing arteries should be considered in the cost of the housing in and beyond the burbs. Then it will show the real cost of those affordable houses. It may not be so appealing anymore to live in the country all of a sudden.
One thing is clear: mobility is going to cost us more. Unfortunately, many of our roads weren’t upgraded in the good times, so don’t hold your breath for the next years. I am pretty sure city council would love to have a moratorium on building new roads for the next three years. A few kilometers of road easily cost between 50 and 100 million dollars, so that would be the easiest money saved in order to keep the taxes low, as demanded by constituents.
Also read in this series: part 1: Gil Penolosa.
All pics by Urban Commuter except Disney and Vrtucar screenshots.
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